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Arizona wildfires kill 19 fire fighters

Gusty, hot winds blew an Arizona blaze out of control June 30 in a forest northwest of Phoenix, overtaking and killing 19 members of an elite fire crew in the deadliest wildfire involving firefighters in the U.S. for at least 30 years.

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Hearses carrying the bodies of 19 firefighters killed last week arrive in Prescott, Ariz., on Sunday during a procession that started in Phoenix. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times /July 7, 2013)

By Rick Rojas

Los Angeles Times

PRESCOTT, Ariz. — They waited hours in 100-degree heat, waving American flags, purple balloons and signs with messages from a community that vowed never to forget the Granite Mountain Hotshots and their sacrifice.

The bodies of 19 firefighters killed combating the Yarnell Hill blaze that burned through nearly 8,400 acres in central-west Arizona had been released from the Maricopa County medical examiner’s office in Phoenix on Sunday. Crowds gathered to honor them along the way and welcome them home.

Spectators who had been talking, sitting on rocks and licking ice cream cones began pushing their way to the edge of the sidewalk as a stream of police cars and motorcycles materialized around a bend. Then came 19 white hearses, each with the name of the firefighter it carried printed on a placard in a window.

Some clapped as the procession made its way through. Others held signs: “God Bless Our Firefighters.” “They will never be forgotten.” “Thank you. We love you.”

On one corner, someone had placed 19 white crosses shrouded in a gauzy purple fabric. Down the street, someone released 19 purple balloons.

“Here, everyone feels the pain in the loss of these lives,” said Rayna Yoss, a native of San Pedro who retired to Prescott in 2010.

The procession cut through scrubby desert terrain and small towns. It stopped close to the place in Yarnell where the fast-moving blaze overran the firefighters on June 30.

In Prescott, where the Granite Mountain Hotshots were based, hundreds of people lined the route. Many arrived hours early.

“It’s not just about Prescott; everyone feels this sense of loss,” said Kathleen Baird, 59, who moved to Prescott nearly a year ago. “It’s still this disbelief almost. … You can’t wrap your head all around it.”

Laurie McCoy, 59, said the procession was an opportunity where “you can show some respect and gratitude.”

On Sunday, as in the days after the firefighters’ death, talk has centered on the community’s resolve and how the residents are pulling through a tragedy. But McCoy echoed a message she heard in church services earlier in the day: “We can’t be in this for the short run. We have be in this for the long run.”

Baird nodded.

“This is something that has to last,” McCoy said.

AZ HOTSHOTS

OLYMPIA — The tragic deaths of 19 wildfire fighters in Arizona has sent shock waves around the country.

shelterNow fire officials in Washington state plan to take a closer look at their safety policies to make sure a tragedy like that doesn’t happen here.

Back in 2001, a blaze in Eastern Washington killed four firefighters; they, too, were trying to ride out the firestorm in portable fire shelters.

That tragedy forced a complete redesign of the shelters.

The top man at the Washington State Department of Natural Resources said the new shelters are good, but even they aren’t going to save lives when the inferno is too intense.

Washington Public Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark has a unique perspective into wildfires. He’s not only in charge of the state agency that monitors and responds when wildfires burn out of control; he also spent more than three decades as a volunteer firefighter in Eastern Washington.

“You take notice of it because if you’re close to the fire at all, even a couple hundred feet, there’s a lot of radiant heat coming off the fire,” said Goldmark.

Fire shelters are meant to keep out the intense heat and save lives, but they aren’t perfect.

“It’s a last line of defense,” Goldmark said. “It may or may not sustain you during the period of a burn over.”

The new shelters were developed after the 2001 tragedy in Eastern Washington where four firefighters died in a burn near Winthrop.

“They deployed shelters but the shelters did not protect them and as a result of that, there was a new generation of fire shelter that has been in use since 2003 which has greater reflective capacity and greater insulating ability,” said Goldmark.

Disasters like those haunt officials who send men and women into the wild to protect life and property. Goldmark hopes to learn from the Arizona tragedy. His agency plans to review what happened there to see if any local policy changes need to protect firefighters here.

“Of course, we’ll be looking for the after-action investigation and what the results are and if they can give us any cause to change our accepted procedures,” Goldmark said. “I want to underscore the importance that our firefighters are trained to have lookouts, communications, escape routes and safety zones.”

Forecasters are gearing up for what could be a busy wildfire season in Washington state. Right now they’re worried about the Fourth of July and illegal fireworks that could spark the next big wildfire.

PUYALLUP — His name was Jesse James Steed.

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Jesse Steed, left, and brother Cassidy Steed.

Part of the Granite Mountain Hotshots in Prescott, Ariz., for more than a decade, Steed, 36, captained the unit for the past two years. Unbelievably, 19 brave men are all gone.

“I mean one person is bad enough, but when we have a group of folks,” family friend Tracie Jarratt said, trailing off. “I can’t imagine how they are coping down there. Having not just one family but 19 families to try and help through the process.  It’s just a really large-scale … just a huge, huge loss.”

Jarratt works with Jesse’s brother, Cassidy Steed, who is a Renton police officer.

Cassidy raised Jesse after their mom died 25 years ago.

Though Jesse was the younger brother, he was always larger than life.

“Oh, fantastic,” Jarratt said of Jesse. “He was a former Marine.  He spent several years in the military, great family man, married, two little kids, 3 and 4 years old.”

Cassidy Steed spoke with Q13 FOX News Monday night about his loss and his brother’s legacy.

“I’m just kind of numb and in a state of shock,” Cassidy Steed said. “I looked up to him. He was an outstanding man. He was a big family man and he loved his job. He definitely sacrificed a lot for his job, time away from his family, hours spent training to be safe at it.  The time he put into it was really impressive and I’m really proud of him.”

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The late Jesse Steed seen on the right in circle.

While everyone else runs away from wildfires like the one burning near Yarnell, Ariz., the Hotshots always ran toward them, saving lives and property — no matter the danger or risk.

Jarratt created a Web site in their memory and as a way from everyone everywhere to donate to a fund to help the families of the fallen firefighters.

“I mean any place in the world, $5, $10, $100, anything. It’s not going to bring them back, but, you know, maybe it will help ease the pain a little bit, knowing that they’re not going to have to worry about their finances,” Jarratt said.

“They’re heroes. They died heroes. They were heroes in our homes. Heroes in our community. We all will miss him very much. We all consider him a hero, along with all the other men that died,” said Juliann Ashcraft, the wife of another of the fallen firefighters, Andrew Ashcraft, 29.

If you’d like to donate to the fallen firefighters’ fund, follow this link: http://www.gofundme.com/3gan7g

PRESCOTT, Ariz. — The so-called hotshots were remembered as a rambunctious but respectful bunch: pranksters, sometimes, but dedicated and energetic professionals.

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Firefighters in Prescott, Ariz., grieve over the loss of their friends. ( Mark Boster, Los Angeles Times / July 1, 2013 )

Their boss, Prescott Fire Chief Dan Fraijo, grew apprehensive Sunday as another official told him Prescott’s elite Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew had dug in to escape the wind-driven Yarnell Hill wildfire.

“All he said was, ‘We might have bad news. The entire hotshot crew deployed their shelters,’ ” Fraijo recalled Monday.

The worst was soon confirmed: All but one member of the 20-man crew died after being overrun by the fire, which destroyed 200 buildings in the small town of Yarnell and exceeded 8,000 acres by Monday.

The tragedy reverberated through Prescott and beyond, as portraits of the lost Prescott crew took shape and the town took its first steps toward mourning the dead.

About a half-dozen people gathered on the steps of the county courthouse in downtown Prescott on Monday afternoon to pray for the fallen firefighters, for those left injured and homeless by the blaze and for those still fighting the conflagration.

They also prayed for rain.

But Prescott had no more firefighters to send. Its only wildland team was gone.

The hotshot crew victims were all men, most in their 20s.

“It’s a younger man’s game. These people keep themselves in exceptional condition,” said Fraijo, who added, “I never heard them complain…. They always showed a great deal of respect. They always seemed to be playing pranks on each other, and a few on me.”

The deceased were Andrew Ashcraft, 29; Robert Caldwell, 23; Travis Carder, 31; Dustin Deford, 24; Christopher MacKenzie, 30; Eric Marsh, 43; Grant McKee, 21; Sean Misner, 26; Scott Norris, 28; Wade Parker, 22; John Percin, 24; Anthony Rose, 23; Jesse Steed, 36; Joe Thurston, 32; Travis Turbyfill, 27; William Warneke, 25; Clayton Whitted, 28; Kevin Woyjeck, 21; and Garret Zuppiger, 27.

The identity of the crew member who survived has not been released.

“He’s well; he had been assigned to do a function and he wasn’t with them when they had deployed to shelter,” Fraijo said. “He feels terribly, and we all feel terribly, and we have very few words that express that sort of sorry. When you take a person in your arms and hug ‘em, you know, you don’t have to say too much.”

The blaze was sparked by a lightning strike Friday, officials said.

Kathy Bryan of Williamson Valley said the members of the fire crew who perished helped save her home from the Doce blaze after it flared up June 18 in the Granite Mountain Wilderness, northwest of Prescott. That’s roughly 20 miles north of the Yarnell Hill fire.

“These hotshots were on our properties, saving them … saving my house,” Bryan said. “It’s heartbreaking.”

Bryan and her dogs fled her home before the blaze approached. Soon Bryan’s cousin called, letting her know that the wife of one of the hotshots fighting the blaze had offered Bryan a place to stay. That woman is now a widow, Bryan said.

Now Bryan believes it’s her turn to help. “I need to find out what she needs,” Bryan said she told her cousin. “What can I do for her?”

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, U.S. Army Sgt. T.J. Ashcraft said one of the dead firefighters was his younger brother Andrew, who was a good man and a good father to his four children.

“We always kind of pushed each other in good ways,” said Ashcraft, 32. “He went the firefighter route and I went the military route.”

Another dead firefighter, Anthony Rose, was expecting his first child with his fiancee, according to family friend Phyllis Barney of Glendale, Ariz.

Barney’s family met Rose in the small Arizona town of Crown King, southeast of Prescott, when Rose moved there at age 16. In Crown King, Rose earned his GED online and went to work for the local fire department.

“Just getting notifications that an entire crew is killed … is a little difficult to handle when they’re your own and whatnot,” Barney said. “But when you’ve got one that really was kind of your own … it’s even tougher.”

The firefighters’ bodies were taken to the Maricopa County medical examiner’s office in Phoenix on Monday, and it was not clear when they would be returned to Prescott. Officials were still deciding when to hold a formal memorial service.

Some of the circumstances of the crew’s plight came into slightly sharper focus Monday, although officials cautioned that it could be a couple of days before more preliminary information was available while investigators picked through the disaster area.

Before the flames overtook the firefighters, a thunderstorm cell had moved into their location west of state Highway 89 between Yarnell and Peeples Valley, fire officials said.

The storm created strong and erratic winds in an area described as extremely rocky, with rough terrain and deep canyons. The gusts pushed the flames toward the hotshots, who were trying to create a firebreak in hopes of stopping the flames’ advance, said Wade Ward, a spokesman for the Prescott Fire Department.

As the winds shifted and fire approached, the men were probably trying to get to safety — usually a clearing, Ward said.

“It had to be a perfect storm” for them to have deployed their fire shelters — a last-ditch effort made in desperate situations, he said. Officials lost contact with the crew about 4:30 p.m. Sunday.

“Obviously wherever they deployed their shelters, they were too close to heavy fuels, so they got overrun,” said Art Morrison, a fire spokesman with the Arizona State Forestry Division.

Ward knew the men, calling them “brothers.” He described the elite team  as “very cautious” and “very conservative.”

Wade Parker, 22, of Chino Valley, about 30 miles north of Prescott, was another of the victims.

Parker’s 14-year-old cousin, Hailey McMains, viewed him as a big brother. “After church, we would find a place to sit and talk about life,” Hailey said. Wade would ask her: “’Anything we need to pray for, Hailey?’ If I was having a bad week, we’d pray about that.”

Hailey said Wade and his high school sweetheart planned to marry in October. They had been together six years, she said.

She was at the home of an aunt and uncle Sunday evening when she heard on the news that some firefighters had died. “I asked my aunt, ‘Is Wade OK?’” Hailey said.

Her aunt put her fingers to her lips and said: “Sssssshhhhhhh,” pointing to one of Wade’s young nephews.

“A little while later, as I was leaving, she whispered, ‘Wade didn’t make it, Hailey,’ ” the girl recalled. “I cried all night long.”

President Obama, traveling in Africa, issued the following statement a few hours after the firefighters’ deaths near Yarnell, Ariz.:

“Yesterday, 19 firefighters were killed in the line of duty while fighting a wildfire outside Yarnell, Ariz. They were heroes — highly-skilled professionals who, like so many across our country do every day, selflessly put themselves in harm’s way to protect the lives and property of fellow citizens they would never meet.

“In recent days, hundreds of firefighters have battled extremely dangerous blazes across Arizona and the Southwest. The federal government is already assisting, and we will remain in close contact with state and local officials to provide the support they need.

“But today, Michelle and I join all Americans in sending our thoughts and prayers to the families of these brave firefighters and all whose lives have been upended by this terrible tragedy.”

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer also issued a statement:

“This is as dark a day as I can remember, with Arizona suffering the truly unimaginable loss of 19 wildland firefighters. They were battling the Yarnell Fire, near Prescott, when the fast-moving blaze overtook their position.

“It may be days or longer before an investigation reveals how this tragedy occurred, but the essence we already know in our hearts: Fighting fires is dangerous work. The risk is well-known to the brave men and women who don their gear and do battle against forest and flame.

”When a tragedy like this strikes, all we can do is offer our eternal gratitude to the fallen, and prayers for the families and friends left behind. God bless them all.”

– By Louis Sahagun, Cindy Carcamo and Matt Pearce; Los Angeles Times

Carcamo reported from Prescott, Ariz., Sahagun from Chino Valley, Ariz., and Pearce from Los Angeles. Times staff writers Molly Hennessy-Fiske and Rick Rojas in Prescott and Andrew Khouri and Devin Kelly in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

THIRTY MILES OUTSIDE PRESCOTT, Ariz. — Dan Fraijo doesn’t know precisely when his men left Prescott, nor what happened to them. But he knows they’re not coming back.

Nineteen firefighters with the Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew — an elite wildland firefighting unit sponsored by the Prescott Fire Department and its chief, Fraijo — died near Yarnell, Ariz., on Sunday in the worst wildland firefighting loss in the U.S. since 1933.

“Emotionally? We’re devastated,” Fraijo said at a news conference late Sunday. “We just lost 19 of some of the finest people you’re ever going to meet. Right now we’re in crisis. … Truly, we’re going through a terrible crisis right now.”

The men went missing as the evacuated town of Yarnell was ravaged by the blaze, fanned by winds sometimes exceeding 40 mph and temperatures approaching 100 degrees. One official estimated that 200 structures had been lost.

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Members of the Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshot Crew

“This is as dark a day as I can remember,” Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer said in a statement. “It may be days or longer before an investigation reveals how this tragedy occurred, but the essence we already know in our hearts: Fighting fires is dangerous work.”

President Obama praised the firefighters as “heroes — highly-skilled professionals who, like so many across our country do every day, selflessly put themselves in harm’s way to protect the lives and property of fellow citizens they would never meet. … Michelle and I join all Americans in sending our thoughts and prayers” to the firefighters’ families.

Officials lost radio contact with the crew at 4:30 p.m. Sunday, said Steve Skurja, assistant spokesman for the Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office. A helicopter crew spotted the bodies, he told The Times.

For more on this LA Times story, click here.

YARNELL, Ariz. (FOX10) – Gusty, hot winds blew an Arizona blaze out of control Sunday in a forest northwest of Phoenix, overtaking and killing 19 members of an elite fire crew in the deadliest wildfire involving firefighters in the U.S. for at least 30 years.

Members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots were forced to deploy their fire shelters — tent-like structures meant to shield firefighters from flames and heat — when they were caught near the central Arizona town of Yarnell, state forestry spokesman Art Morrison said. But the shelters didn’t save them.

Flames from the fire lit up the night sky in the forest above the town, and smoke from the blaze could be detected for miles. The Associated Press tweeted late Sunday night that the wildfire had destroyed an estimated 200 homes, but that could not be independently confirmed.

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The Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona. (Photo credit: Tom Story/The Arizona Republic)

A Department of Public Saftey spokesman said one of their helicopter pilots discovered the bodies of the 19 dead firefighters. Officers are working on a way to remove their remains.

The average age of the men in the hotshot crew was 22, according to the DPS spokesman.

The fire started after a lightning strike on Friday and spread to 2,000 acres on Sunday amid triple-digit temperatures, low humidity and windy conditions.

Officials ordered the evacuations of 50 homes in Model Creek, Double A Bar Ranch and the Buckhorn subdivision, and later Sunday afternoon, the Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office expanded the order to include more residents in Yarnell, a town of about 700 residents about 85 miles northwest of Phoenix.

Wendy Carter was one of those evacuated.

“You could see it coming closer and closer and every time the wind would shift, it would start up another Part of it burning,” said Carter. “I was scared, I was scared for animals and grandkids. I just knew we had to get out of there.”

Prescott Fire Chief Dan Fraijo said that the 19 firefighters were a part of the city’s fire department.

“We grieve for the family. We grieve for the department. We grieve for the city,” he said at a news conference Sunday evening. “We’re devastated. We just lost 19 of the finest people you’ll ever meet.”

Hot shot crews are elite firefighters who often hike for miles into the wilderness with chain saws and backpacks filled with heavy gear to build lines of protection between people and fires. They remove brush, trees and anything that might burn in the direction of homes and cities.

The National Fire Protection Association had previously listed the deadliest wildland fire involving firefighters as the 1994 Storm King Fire near Glenwood Springs, Colo., which killed 14 firefighters who were overtaken by a sudden explosion of flames.

Morrison said several homes in the community of Glenisle burned on Sunday. He said no other injuries or deaths have been reported from that area.

 

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